Project Canterbury

South Sea Epic: War and the Church in New Guinea

Compiled by Ruth Henrich

London: Society for the Propagation of the Gospel, 1944.

Chapter VIII. Missionaries Killed

The News reaches England.

Melbourne, October 4th.

Three Church of England missionaries, Miss Mavis Parkinson, Sister May Hayman and the Rev. James Benson have been killed in Papua, according to a report from Army Headquarters in New Guinea, which has been confirmed by authorities in Canberra.

The Times, London, October 4, 1942.

Comment in Australia.

October has been a month of peculiar sorrow and anxiety for all who are associated with the work and fellowship of the Australian Board of Missions. It has been reported to us that on September 1st three of God's missionary servants were called upon to lay down their lives for Christ's sake: James Benson, May Hayman, Mavis Parkinson--priest, nurse, teacher, three colleagues on one mission station--were called upon to give to the world the supreme Christian witness and to become Christian martyrs. Only a few weeks before Henry Matthews had done the same thing. All four belonged to us. They were products of our Australian Church. We have been deeply moved.

A.B.M. Review, November 1, 1942.

Five more Missionaries reported Prisoners.

One of the stark realities of this hour is that four and possibly five of our Papuan missionaries are reported to be prisoners of war. There is nothing that is more calculated to drive us to our knees in constant prayer than this fact. With our imagination wide awake let us make unceasing intercession for our brothers and sisters in every service of the Church and in our private devotions; and let us ask not only for God's preservation and protection and peace on their behalf, but also that wherever they are they may be able to bring glory to Christ our Lord by means of their witness. Let us also have in continual remembrance the dear ones of these missionaries, praying that our Heavenly Father will garrison them with the peace that passeth understanding.

A.B.M. Review, December 1, 1942. 56

[57] First Explanations in England.

No explanation of the death of these missionaries was received until May, 1943, when the following messages from Melbourne were printed in The Times of May 17 and 18, 1943.

Message from The Times Correspondent in Melbourne, May 16, 1943.

It has been learnt from the capture of a number of renegade natives near Buna that 20 white people and one half-caste were murdered between last July and September. They included six airmen who had crashed in the jungle near Buna, four young women who were serving as teachers or nurses with the missionary diocese in New Guinea, four missionaries attached to the diocese, an Australian lieutenant, a sergeant, three privates, and a plantation owner. These murders were committed when the Japanese used their temporary control of the north coast of Papua to influence certain natives to support them. Twelve natives involved in these crimes have been sentenced to death and others are awaiting trial.

The leader is a native named Embogi, who has spent ten of his thirty-five years in prison for murder and assault on natives. When the Japanese began to overrun the coast round Buna and Gona, Embogi, seeing an opportunity for advancement, got together a number of kindred spirits and embarked on a series of horrible crimes. An Australian lieutenant, who had heard that two mission sisters were in the area, sent a man to bring them to safety. Meanwhile, a priest attached to the mission set out for the Japanese base to ask for a safe conduct for the sisters. These and the other victims of the renegade natives met at a mission outstation on the Kumusi river and began their ill-fated trek through the jungle. They reached the Ambogo river, and after crossing without mishap met two natives, who informed the Japanese of their presence and led them to where the party was having a meal. The Japanese killed all but an army officer, two women and three airmen. The men had only side-arms and were completely surprised.

The Times, London, May 17, 1943.

Message from Melbourne, May 17, 1943.

Further details of the murders of the missionaries, allied service men, and others by Japanese and renegade natives in [57/58] New Guinea last year show that a party of seven persons were beheaded on the beach at Buna, including two women. Two other women were bayoneted; three American airmen were clubbed to death by the natives, and a fourth also murdered; and four Australian soldiers and two Americans were killed in a skirmish with the Japanese.

The first party was made up of the Rev. James Benson, Sister Mavis Parkinson, a nurse, and Sister May Hayman, attached to the New Guinea mission at Gona; an Australian officer, a sergeant and three privates, and five American airmen. Mr. Benson and the two women evacuated the mission two hours before the Japanese landing and took refuge ten miles inland. The Australian soldiers, who had been coastline spotters, joined the Americans. The missionaries joined them later, 20 miles from Gona, on the Kumusi River, where natives betrayed them to the Japanese, who killed six of the soldiers. The rest of the party fled into the bush in different directions. The women, struggling through the bush alone, were picked up by natives and handed over to the Japanese, who after imprisoning them for some time, took them to a small plantation where graves were dug. One Japanese tried to assault Sister Parkinson and when she resisted he bayoneted her to death. Another stabbed Sister Hayman in the throat and apparently she died immediately. The bodies were thrown into the graves, whence they were later exhumed by the Australian authorities and given Christian burial.

The Australian officer, meanwhile, combed the jungle for the women, but after two days and nights dropped exhausted. Three natives found him and took him away, and it is believed that he was killed. The three Americans were lost in the bush when some natives accosted them. One American fired a shot and was speared, and all were then bludgeoned to death. Mr. Benson was last seen in Sanananda, whither he had gone to seek a safe-conduct for the women. It is feared that he, too, was murdered.

The other party was at the Sangara mission, 20 miles along the Kokoda track from Gona,and included two women, two priests, and a lay missionary, Commander Austin and the controller of the plantations in that area, and a half-caste. When the Japanese landed all these persons went to a hiding place on the upper Kumusi and then moved towards the coast. They were passing Ambogi when natives attacked them, [58/59] stripped them all naked and drove them across a stream, jeering and slapping them, and locked them up for the night. Next morning the natives drove them on and handed them over to the Japanese at Dobodura, whence they were taken to Buna. The evidence is fairly conclusive that the entire party was beheaded on Buna beach and the bodies flung into the sea. A hundred and twenty natives were arrested in connexion with this crime, but it was proved that only 25 were directly implicated and the others were freed. Five natives were sentenced to death for the murder of the unknown American airman. The Japanese had made the renegade criminal, Embogi, a "captain" and gave him a white arm-band denoting his authority. He assembled a gang as bad as himself, but they were a tiny minority of the New Guinea people.

The Times, London, May 18, 1943.

A Later Correction.

The Bishop was later assured by the officials who investigated the death of our missionaries and others, that it was eventually proved that there was no evidence of the stripping by natives, described above. The renegade natives did not actually take part in the murders. They were not Christians, and had never come under Mission influence; indeed, they came from a district in which the Mission had long desired to start work, but had been prevented from doing so by lack of funds and workers.

Comment in Australia.

Details have appeared in the Press concerning events which happened in the Buna-Sangara district between July and October of last year, and we are informed that, in addition to Sister May Hayman and Miss Mavis Parkinson, the Sangara and Isivita" staffs also perished. These would include the Rev. Henry Holland, the Rev. Vivian Redlich, Mr. John Dufnll, Sister Margery Brenchley and Miss Lilla Lashmar. . . .

It is a matter for much regret that this Press account appeared without first making the facts available to the relatives themselves, or to the organisations which could have advised those concerned. We had already been warned that bad news might come as a result of investigations that were taking place now that the Japanese had been driven from [59/60] Papua. There was, however, in existence a clear understanding with the authorities at Canberra that we should be officially advised before any facts were made public. Enquiry is now being made as to why this undertaking was disregarded, causing that additional distress to the relatives which we thought we had taken adequate precautions to avoid.

The A.B.M. Review, June 1, 1943.

The Missionaries at Gona.

The three missionaries from Gona who were reported killed are: the Rev. James Benson, May Hayman, nurse, and Mavis Parkinson, teacher.

The Rev. James Benson.

Several letters from the Rev. James Benson, describing life on the mission station at Gona, have been given earlier in this book. Extracts from the last letter received by his relatives in England, written on June 6, 1942, are given on pages 35 to 38 above.

James Benson was a Yorkshireman who spent his early life as a craftsman in Bradford. He went out to Australia through the S.P.G. to become a lay member of a Bush Brotherhood. Later he was ordained and, after marrying, joined the New Guinea Mission. He returned to Australia with his wife and young family, only to lose all of them in a tragic motor accident. After a time he entered an Australian Religious Community, the Community of the Ascension at Goulburn, hoping to return to New Guinea with the members of the Community. A change in the Community's plan of life led him to withdraw from it in order to fulfil his vocation to serve the Church in New Guinea, and the rest of his life had been spent in that diocese.

There is some slight hope that Mr. Benson may not have been killed, according to the Bishop's report when able to revisit the area (see p. 84) and a letter from him to Evan Gill, Esq., Liverpool.

Letter from the Bishop of New Guinea, August 18th 1943.

The only one of whom we have no certain knowledge is the Rev. James Benson, who, strange to say, was the first originally reported to have been killed, but he was seen alive [60/61] at the end of November as a prisoner in the hands of the Japanese and we do not know if he was taken away or whether he met his end at the hands of the Japanese at the latter part of the campaign last year. . . .

Sister May Hayman was an Australian who had sole charge of the hospital at Gona. She had recently become engaged to the Rev. Vivian Redlich, missionary at Sangara (see p. 38). Her housekeeping skill under war conditions is described in the Rev. J. Benson's letter on p. 38, and she shared the experiences described by Mavis Parkinson in the letter which follows.

Mavis Parkinson was a young Australian teacher who had charge of the mission school at Gona. Her letter describing their adventures after the arrival of the Japanese was received by her parents some months after her death was reported.

Letter from Mavis Parkinson, August 5, 1942.

I know how terribly worried you all must be, but if thoughts can comfort, I know you must be comforted.

Father Benson, May and I are in a little hideout in the bush and, indeed, are doing what probably few white men have done before, living in the heart of the Papuan jungle.

On Sunday, July 18th, Sergeant Hewitt and Signaller Palmer arrived at Gona on their way through from Buna, and as they had a few days to spare decided to salvage the American aeroplane that had crashed on our station.

As we had visitors at night, May and I dressed for dinner in our long frocks, and afterwards, as it was rather warm, took the light and gramophone out under the palm trees on the lawn, where we talked and ate chocolate the boys had received in Comforts Fund parcels.

Tuesday passed as usual (I was examining the schools) and early in the afternoon I pressed my pretty blue georgette evening frock to wear that night.

About 4.45 p.m. I heard yells from Lancelot, one of my pupil teachers: "Sister, Sister, are you there? Oh, Sister, come quickly!" as he ran up the path from the beach. I simply could not believe my eyes. There were four big ships not far out to sea, and another two on the sky line. Then the boats farther out opened fire on those nearer the beach, burst after burst of shell fire until the ground shook [61/62] with the explosions. Soon a Flying Fortress came over, and one of the transports opened up fire on her. Then ensued a most thrilling naval battle, the warships, both ours and Japan's, seeming to move around like tiny boats, they were so quick. Then the transports put down dinghies, and men got into them, so we decided we'd better move to a healthier spot.

We rushed up to the house, grabbed a box, and flung as much as we could into it, our nicest dresses, some undies, comb, toothbrushes, soap, shoes, etc. The soldiers had meanwhile gone up the beach. Our mission boys were so frightened, but so brave, and carried our things for us along the only road we could take--the mission road to Kokoda. It was by then G.30, and as it was fairly dark w,e stopped at the first little garden house along the track, a mile from Gona. There we said Evensong with the boys, put up our mosquito nets and prepared to settle down. About a quarter of an hour later we heard footsteps on the road, and voices. We thought they were village people going into hiding, and I called out to them first in English, "Boys, come here, we want you," then the same in Motu, but only silence answered. Soon another lot came, and again we called out, and Father whistled, but again silence. Then we saw a torch flash, heard a clank of a bayonet, and knew we had been calling out to patrols of Japanese soldiers passing up the mission road. Our way to Isivita or Sangara was cut off, and we could hear the Japs all round us on the various Kokoda roads. May and I thought we'd like a run for our money, so suggested we should wait our chance of getting over the Kokoda road and into the bush on the other side. We grabbed up our mosquito nets, ground sheets, a blanket each, a tin of biscuits, and a parcel of chocolate Mr. Champion had sent us the day before, a billy-can for water, and Father had his walkabout haversack.

We left everything else, and crept down the path to the track where the Japs were, and as soon as the way was clear, between patrols, we went for our lives across that road and into the thick wet grass on the other side. We pushed through the undergrowth to a log, a damp rotten one, where we spent the rest of the night.

We were all glad to see dawn, and after eating a biscuit each pushed on through the bush. By a great mercy Father had a compass in his bag, one given us by Lieutenant [62/63] Dickenson, an American pilot who had crashed near us and stayed at Gona for some weeks. We'd not gone far when the first raid on Gona occurred. We crouched under a big tree, hoping to get some protection. The air seemed thick with bombs and shells, the planes roared just above our heads, and the air seemed full of dog-fights.

Things quietened down after about eight or ten minutes, and we said Matins, then continued our journey through the bush. Less than every half hour throughout that day there was a raid. We had lunch (two milk coffee biscuits and a piece of chocolate each), and again pushed on, but about 3.30 p.m. we came to a big tree with a brush turkey's nest at its foot, and we decided to make our camp for the night. There had already been 19 raids on Gona that day (surely a record) and as soon as the moon rose they started again. Next day to our dismay, we got into a sago swamp, and only if you'd been in this country could you know what that means--prickly, almost impenetrable undergrowth, and slushy mud underfoot, into which it is possible to sink up to one's waist and even neck, and always the chance of crocodiles. However, we decided to go east, retracing our footsteps, and try to get round that way. Soon we came to a clean running stream, and while Father went farther up the river, May and I stripped and got into the water. Oh, it was heavenly to feel the cool water on our bodies, and to bathe our poor legs, torn by the prickles and thorns of the bush. Then we went on for some distance until, to our great joy, we came to natives. They made a great fuss of us and prepared food for us. My word, we were pretty hungry too, and just ate taro and sweet potato out of the cooking pot--no salt or anything! They told us of Japs on the tracks nearby--more patrols, of course, and also told us we were on the track to Siai, our out-station.

We walked hard the next morning, and about lunch-time we met three Bakum-bari (a village about ten miles from Gona) boys on the track. We were quite overwhelmed by their affectionate greetings. They carried our swags then, and on we went, and arrived at Sageri about mid-afternoon. From there sent a letter on to Siai, telling Father John Yariri, our assistant native priest, who happened to be at Siai giving the Christians there their Communion, to meet us the next day. Next morning off we went again, the Sageri people carrying our swags, and just beyond Orosusu [63/64] met Father John, Nathaniel (the Siai teacher) and a crowd of Siai people, Christian and heathen. As long as I live I shall never forget the welcome they gave us. They hugged and patted us for ages, and actually cried over us.

They took us on to Siai station and there we had another demonstration, by the women this time. They brought us food and hot water for a bath. May and I took off our filthy dresses and washed them, and while they dried, May wore a cassock of Father John's and I wore an alb!

The people decided the best thing to do would be to build us a cottage in the bush where we should be hidden until things cleared up a little. We could still hear the bombs falling on Gona. So we came to this house just a fortnight ago to-day (August 10). Mr. Chester sent May and me some clothes belonging to a woman who had evacuated in January--dresses and scanties, and a few towels and two nightdresses, so we are beautifully fitted out.

We've simply no idea what is happening, though we do know that the bombing of Gona has stopped. Of course, we hear all sorts of rumours. We heard of fighting for Kokoda at Olive Hill, and now we hear of fighting on the Moresby Road. We heard that the Japs' cartridges are finished and the fighting is now hand to hand. (Here the letter ends).

From Australian Women's Weekly, May 1, 1943

The Missionaries at Sangara and Isivita.

The missionaries from Sangara and Isivita who were reported killed are: the Rev. Vivian Redlich; the Rev. Henry Holland; John Duffill, a layman; Margery Brenchley, nurse; and Lilla Lashmar, teacher.

The Rev. Vivian Redlich.

We have no details about any of these missionaries, except the Rev. Vivian Redlich, some of whose letters' have been given above. Like James Benson, he went out to join an Australian Bush Brotherhood, and went to New Guinea from Australia. He was a young priest who only left England in 1935.

[65] Letter from the Bishop of New Guinea to Vivian Redlich's father in England.

October 23, 1942.

You will, by now, have received distressing and grievous news about your son, Vivian, that it is feared that he and the other missionaries from Sangara are prisoners in the hands of the Japanese. This news is based on native reports, which past experience has proved are not always correct, but the authorities feel that as the reports have come in from more than one source they must accept them as being most probably correct. Nothing further is known or was known when I was last able to contact with the authorities. We cannot know for certain what has happened until the doors into the occupied area are once again opened. . . .

I was in Vivian's district on a Visitation in the early part of June. He had been unwell for some time and so I brought him back to our head station that he might have a few weeks' rest and change. He picked up marvellously in that time, and was feeling very well and fit again, and he set forth to return to his station in the middle of July, where his presence was greatly needed as he was the only priest there. Towards the end of his sea journey on July 21st he nearly ran into the enemy convoy bringing the invading force, but managed to remain unobserved and get ashore safely elsewhere. He could have turned back and returned to us here, but apparently he did not even contemplate doing such a thing. His high sense of duty and vocation evidently impelled him to endeavour to get back to his station inland. We were all, naturally, very concerned about him and about our mission vessel when we heard of what had happened in that region, knowing that they would be in that region about that time.

Eventually our vessel returned and brought a letter from him telling us that he was still with the Newmans, who also could have come away then and there but decided it was their duty to remain. Vivian told us he intended to try and get through to his station and join up with his fellow workers. We were anxious about him as it seemed likely that he would be in grave danger on that inward journey. However, eventually another letter from him reached us, a pencilled note written on July 27th from the Bush, showing that he had got through safely and was in his own district again; that he had not been able to contact the other missionaries, but knew where they were and that they were safe. This [65/66] note reached me through one (not of our mission) who was captured and then escaped, and must have contacted Vivian after his escape, and brought the letter out. The letter was not handed personally to me by the bearer and I have not been able to see him as he had to be invalided away at once. That note was the last I have received from Vivian, and the last first-hand news of him. I am sending you a copy of it, or as much of it as it is possible to send, because I want you to see and know the exceedingly fine and wonderful spirit it reveals. Parts of it arc in Vivian's characteristic style with a flavour of lightheartedness, but the last paragraph unconsciously portrays, I feel, great nobility of spirit, a high sense of loyalty to his priestly and missionary vocation, and courage and faith worthy of the best traditions of the missionary service. Of this we can justly feel proud, and for it humbly offer thanksgiving to Almighty God. . . .

From the reports, which are in some details somewhat conflicting, it would appear that he and the others fell into enemy hands in the early part of August. . . .

Whatever the future may reveal about our missionaries who have passed under the shadow of tribulation, their devotion to duty and to a great and noble vocation, and refusal to take opportunities which offered of leaving for their own personal safety, must ever stand to their honour, and to the glory of the Church which they served. It was clear to us all from the first that a resolution, such as all our missionaries made last January, when others in the Territory were leaving, to stand by the call which God had given them and to cleave to His work to which they had been sent might involve suffering of one kind or another for some or all of us, and that this might prove to be the only way in which God, at this time, could be glorified in His Church in this land, even as it has so often been in the history of Christianity in past centuries. If it should have to be so, we know, however, that we could be certain of at least two things: First, that we should not be left alone in such an hour, but would have the Divine Presence with us, and His grace and strength to sustain us: and, secondly, that such sacrifice would not be in vain, but would be the seed of new life and strength for the Church in years to come. I do indeed hope that with Vivian and those with him all may yet prove to be well, but even if the future should reveal that they have been called upon to suffer to the uttermost we can be certain that they have been [66/67] sustained by God in the midst of it, and because such sufferings would be for Him and for His truth's sake they must and would have a glorious and victorious end.

Last letter from the Rev. Vivian Redlich to the Bishop of New Guinea.

Somewhere in the Bush.
Monday, July 27.

My dear Bishop,

I am back in my own district and not far off from fun and games. I have not yet contacted directly any of the staff but know for certain that Margery, Lilla and John are somewhere about and that yesterday they were safe--also Henry, who is still on his station. Luscombe and Bessie were O.K. on Thursday--latter moved to safer spot. No word of May, Mavis and James, or of Romney.

Big upset, of course. I've contacted some of my people but they are too scared to have me near--however, I shall keep in touch with them as much as possible. I could not have Eucharist on St. James's Day owing to the scare but did on Sunday in the Bush. The place near my home has been busted up and I think mine, too, by now--I have visited it and got some stuff out in the Bush and rescued chalices, etc. ... . '

I shall try and carry on my job, and I know Henry is doing so too. Give me a thought sometimes but don't worry--I'm prepared for whatever may happen.

The boys I brought back have been invaluable and behaved magnificently.

Last letter from Vivian Redlich to his father in England.

The following letter in pencil, written on a scrap of paper, and folded with the address outside, was received by Vivian's father from a Field Post Office:--

Somewhere in the Papuan Bush.
July 27, 1942.

My dear Dad,

The War has busted up here. I got back from Dogura and ran right into it--and am now somewhere in my parish trying to carry on, though my people are horribly scared.

No news of May and I'm cut off from contacting her--my staff O.K. so far but in another spot.

[68] I'm trying to stick whatever happens. If I don't come out of it just rest content that I've tried to do my job faithfully.

Rush chance of getting word out, so forgive brevity.

God bless you all,


Quotation from a letter from the Bishop of Rockhampton to the father of Vivian Redlich.

Probably you have heard by now the very fine line that Vivian took just a little time before his death. I have not the exact words before me, but I believe this is what happened. He was about to celebrate Holy Communion with his native people when word was brought to him that he was to be seized by the Japanese. He spent a moment or two in silent prayer and then said, "It is the Lord's Day, and the Lord's service that I am taking, and I intend to see it through," and he did. It was fine self-composure and equally fine courage at such a moment.

Memorial Service for the Martyred Missionaries.

On October 15th a Service of Remembrance to the fallen missionaries was held in St. Paul's Cathedral, Melbourne. The note of this service was triumph in the midst of sorrow. It was an inspiration to be there, and must, I think, have given help to the relatives who were present.

A.B.M. Review, November 1, 1942.

The following resolutions were passed by the Australian Board of Missions and the Victorian Committee respectively:--

1. That the Board desires to express its great sympathy with the Bishop of New Guinea and his staff in their present difficulties, anxieties and dangers, and its profound admiration for the faith and courage with which they are facing them.

The Board is satisfied that despite the obvious and terrible risks to which the decision exposed them, the Bishop and those whose advice he sought did rightly in deciding that the duty of the members of the Mission staff was to remain at their post.

The Board feels that such a decision was in line with the finest traditions of Christian Missions, and brings honour not only to the individual men and women concerned, but to the whole Church and cause of God.

[69] 2. That this Committee, having heard of the martyrdom of four of our missionaries in New Guinea, the Rev. H. Matthews, Rev. J. Benson, Sister May Hayman and Miss Mavis Parkinson, and of the imprisonment by the enemy of five others, the Rev. Henry Holland, the Rev. V. E. Redlich, the Misses Margery Brenchley and Lilla Lashmar and Mr. J. Duffill, desires to express its sorrow at the great loss sustained to the Diocese of New Guinea by the death and imprisonment of these noble missionaries, but also its thankfulness to God for their inspired and heroic lives of service and witness. To the mercy of God we commend them all, both living and departed.

This Committee accepts on behalf of the Church in Victoria the challenge of their sacrificial service and the death of those who have been killed while on active missionary duty, to renewed devotion in earnest prayer and service for the missionary work of the Church and especially in the Diocese of New Guinea.

A.B.M. Review, November 1, 1942.

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